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Sweet Hepatica nobilis, you are worth the hunt. Who wouldn't cross a sea of highways for your dark green leaves with their purple underbellies and your flowers so rich a blue? And Hemerocallis 'Ptarmigan': you, too, are a noble find, with your glorious near-white six-inch blooms. Then there's dear little Pinellia tripartita 'Atropurpurea', a handsome and notable woodlander in your hood with lovely maroon interior and your long, slender spadix.
Gardening, of course, is all about choice--the plants you bring into your garden, how many, how well you treat them so that they'll stay. It's like a dinner party of interesting, exotic personalities. Each plant has a particular presence. But how do you know what it is? And where do you go to find them? The answer: specialty nurseries.
Think of these green meccas (many of which are off the beaten track, in gorgeously pastoral settings) as "destination" nurseries. Over the past 10 years, Canada has sprouted dozens of them across the country. (See the sidebar on page 77 for a list of the best.) People who come to these places are often on a quest, seeking a particular perennial or looking for different varieties. There's an intensity about it--a kind of obsession, really. Come to think of it, destination nurseries may be too tame a term. This is Nature-porn.
"All mad, keen gardeners start out in a conservative manner," observes Susan Dyer, a Toronto gardener and former board member of the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG). "You start with a small garden and put in the expected plants--the annuals and some perennials. And then your taste grows more refined," she says, her voice filled with mock caution. Eventually, invariably, "it becomes a treasure hunt to discover different kinds of plants."
In a way, plants are the new wine--once people start to know a little, they soon want to know a lot. Which is not a problem, since this enthusiasm among gardeners is matched if not surpassed by the dedication of horticulturists who operate destination nurseries out of a similar obsession. Larry Davidson, the owner of Acton, Ont.-based Lost Horizons, a three-acre/1.2-hectare nursery with display gardens that occupy about half the site, started his business of selling top-quality perennials 10 years ago, when, as a residential landscaper, he couldn't find the plants he wanted. "They were the more unusual perennials, which today wouldn't be considered that unusual," he says.
Ironically, that spiralling interest in the latest, greatest, most unusual plant--the very demand that allowed Davidson's business to take off--also makes him think more carefully about what he offers his clients. "In the general market, there's too much emphasis on what's new. Some of these plants aren't worthwhile; they haven't been tested enough. And often, within a few years, they …